Analysis: GOP has path to Latino voters, but roadblocks lay ahead
Republicans aim to win over the Latino vote in 2012 elections (Getty Images)
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Considering that the 2012 elections could showcase whether the Republican Party is capable of winning over Latino voters, the GOP has a choice to make.
Will the GOP make the adjustments needed in order to appeal to a broader swath of traditionally Democratic Latino voters? Or will party leaders stay the course and miss out on crucial segments of the rapidly growing demographic for years to come?
There’s no magical solution that can solve the GOP’s problems with Latino voters, but it is clear that what it is doing right now isn’t working.
Despite the fact that a number of conservative Latino candidates won key statewide races in 2010, such as Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, Latino support for the GOP continues to lag.
Some members of the party are determined to turn the tide and steal away a big enough portion of the Latino vote so that the Republicans can defeat President Obama next year. A fledgling political group called the Hispanic Leadership Network (HLN) says it’s committed to doing just that.
At its Southwest conference in New Mexico last weekend, HLN organizers said that the group will launch a sustained grassroots outreach effort to communicate a “center-right” message on issues such as the economy, education, and immigration to Latino voters around the country. They said that they will also make an effort to gather input from Latinos on message and policy.
The group’s two-day conference brought together several hundred right-leaning Latinos and non-Latinos, current and former public officials, political operatives, and policy experts in an effort to brainstorm the best strategies for reaching Latinos.
The consensus among most participants was that the Republican Party doesn’t need to fundamentally change its limited government mission, it just needs to communicate better with, and reach out directly to, independent minded Latino voters who would be open to voting for Republican candidates.
Gov. Martinez, a rising star in the GOP, explained to the audience on Friday night how she switched parties in 1995 after being a lifelong Democrat, saying that she didn’t change her views, she just realized that her values were much more in line with the Republican Party.
“It took commitment to our values to change parties. Because someone had the courage to have the conversation with us about our values,” she said. “You have to have sincere conversations, not the rhetoric.”
HLN organizers hope that this type of outreach, combined with President Obama’s falling approval rating among Latinos, will help them reach their goal.
“Hispanic-Americans are center-right, they just don’t act that way in the voting booth,” said former Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who leads HLN’s affiliate group, the American Action Network. “In my business, the world belongs to those who show up.”
Political observers believe that to win the White House, the GOP’s presidential nominee would only need to earn the support of about 40 percent of Latino voters nationally - close to the proportion President Bush won in 2004 - and make progress in key swing states like Florida and New Mexico.
But that task might prove more difficult than it seems.
On their top issues, such as the economy and education, Latino voters still trust Democrats over Republicans in both state-by-state and national polling, calling into question whether it is the message or the policy that’s the problem for Republicans.
Another issue troubling the GOP with Latinos is what Coleman calls “the i-word”: immigration.
Though it doesn’t rank at the top of the list of issues important to Latinos personally, the use of immigration as a wedge issue for conservative voters during primary season appears to turn Latino voters against Republican ideas.
Polling research shows that this is precisely the case. The immigration issue “has not been very positive for us,” said Dan Judy, a Republican pollster who is vice president of the firm Ayres, McHenry & Associates (One of the firms partners, Whit Ayres, is a pollster for GOP presidential candidate Jon Huntsman).
“It’s a tone problem and also a policy problem,” Luke Frans, executive director of the conservative group Resurgent Republic, added during a panel discussion last Friday.
That problem was on full display during the GOP presidential debate last Thursday night, just before the HLN conference began.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R), the field’s front-runner, was taken to the woodshed by his rival candidates and the debate audience for defending a Texas state law he signed that provides in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, a measure that is very popular with Latino voters.
The criticism led Perry to tell his opponents who don’t support the policy, “I don’t think you have a heart.” That comment drew boos from the crowd.
Republicans don’t necessarily have to fully embrace comprehensive immigration reform in order to earn the support of more Latinos, but their opposition to smaller scale reforms like Perry’s Texas law and the national DREAM Act, appears to be holding them back.
The hyper-competitive GOP presidential primary - something that Bush didn’t have to deal with during his successful 2004 campaign - means that Republican candidates will continue to cater to their base voters for months to come.
Will that make it too tough for the nominees to eventually appeal to Latino swing voters once the general election rolls around? Will HLN’s message impact GOP power players in the current political climate, or will it fall on deaf ears?
With the Latino population exploding in size - it now numbers 50 million - and more and more young, US-born Latinos becoming eligible to vote, the stakes could not be higher in 2012. If they don’t change their message now, Republicans risk alienating first-time Latino voters for the foreseeable future.
That could cause trouble beyond 2012 in some states with rapidly-expanding Latino populations that double as major GOP strongholds.
“Four years from now, we won’t be talking about [making gains],” said Judy. “We may be saying, ‘how do we not lose Texas?’”
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